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Introduction

Ethnography was a term originally used (in anthropology) to mean the study of
the institutions and customs in small, well-defined communities in societies with
little technological advance.

Ethnography is now generally used to refer to the detailed study of small groups
of people (for example, in factories, classrooms, hospitals, ‘deviant’ sub-cultures)
within a complex society. It is also used as a technique (often alongside other
methods) in community studies.

Ethnography is seen as a basically descriptive approach by some practitioners


and as a process for testing and developing theory by others.

For some ethnographers the strength of the approach is the insights it provides of
social phenomena in their natural setting.

Thus, ethnography is often, although not always, used as a procedure for getting
an understanding from the subjects’ point of view. This approach sees
ethnography as means of gaining an understanding through an immersion of the
researcher in the field of study. This presupposes that such immersion permits the
researcher to come to appreciate the processes operating in the subject group,
institution or community.

This immersion and attempting to see the subject’s point of view has lead to a
tendency to see ethnography as closely linked to
a phenomenological perspective. However, far from all ethnographic research is
guided by phenomenological concerns and the approach has been used in
conjunction with positivist orientations. Ethnography has also been used
in critical social research. Ethnographic work is usually intended to provide
detailed information on what people do and insights into what they think they are
doing and why they are doing it. Watching what people do is useful as it provides
a certain amount of direct data. However, as with any other data this only has
meaning if put in some kind of context. If the researcher adopts an outsider view
the data makes sense only through the researcher's frame of reference. This leads
to the imposition of some external explanation onto the practices that operate
within the group under study. In short, the researcher has a view of social actions
that do not make the same sense to him or her as they do to the people in the
social group.

Ethnography, thus goes one stage further and attempts to illicit the sense of the
group. The researcher is required to become acquainted with meanings the
actions have for the members of the group. The researcher, in one way or
another, is expected to access members own self-accounting. Ethnography tries
to generate an understanding of the group from their point of view.

This process of accessing members meanings may be by co-existing with the


group, i.e. participating in one way or another and gradually assimilating the
perspective, or it might be 'short-circuited' to some extent, by asking questions.
Such questioning is, of course, not of the scheduled interview type. It is designed
to allow the respondent to develop their own frames of reference, not the
interviewer's. The idea is to get respondents to talk about how they see their
world, so any device, ranging from an impromptu, in-situ chat through to semi-
structured interviews, may be a suitable vehicle. Unfortunately, the respondents
will not simply reveal sets of group meanings. This is not because they are trying
to hide them but because they are unaware of the abstract frame of meaning of
the social processes that operate in the group.

Thus the ethnographer has to extract these meanings from the plethora of
comment, opinion, anecdote, example and intention contained in the responses.
This requires a considerable amount of 'thinking on ones feet'. The researcher,
particularly when conducting depth interviews, has to be alert to nuances, taken-
for-granteds and things left unsaid, as they may provide clues to underlying
motives, presuppositions or frames of reference. Gentle probing is crucial, the
ethnographer should dig-down into the respondent's frame of reference. A
relaxed attitude where short silences are not uncomfortable is important. Depth of
response can often be achieved by allowing the respondent chance for a reprise,
most easily achieved by not rushing to fill a silence at what appears to be the end
of the respondent's reply by hastily asking another question.

Central to the ethnographer's ability to illicit meanings is a critical attitude


towards ones own presuppositions. Reflexivity is central to ethnographic
research.

Reflexivity (especially theoretical reflexivity) is not easy, but it is particularly


difficult where interviews are 'one-offs'. The more contact one has the more
likely one is to be able to dig deeper. However, a great deal of contact can also
lead one to start taking the group perspective for granted and to lose track of the
nature of group meanings. It is thus important to record material of all types
scrupulously, in as much detail either at the time or as soon after as is reasonably
possible. Material received from subjects should be augmented by an ongoing
journal of the researcher's own involvement, actions, and reflections upon the
research situation and research process. Constant review of recorded material of
all sorts helps reflexivity, theory development and understanding.

Approaches to ethnography
Overview
There are a large number of different emphases among ethnographers. Some
(probably most) ethnographers aim at detailed patterns of social interaction.
Others attempt to reveal cultural knowledge. Still others consider it an approach
suitable to holistic analysis of societies.

The emphasis for most ethnography is usually on forms of social interaction and
the meanings that lie behind these, rather than attempts at causal analysis.

Conventional approach to ethnography


The conventional approach to ethnography is derived from the codification of the
American experience since 1900, which mainly derives from the interactionist
perspective. The conventional wisdom is that participant observation, while not
'objective; in the sense used in discussing the reliability and validity of the social
survey, is a set of methods directed towards an unbiased and accurate analytic
description of a complex social organisation.

This approach sees ethnography as a method which used prevailing theoretical


concepts and propositions to guide the analysis through a systematic collection,
classification and reporting of 'facts' in order to generate new
empirical generalisations based on these data. As such, this inductive approach
sees analytic description as primarily an empirical application and modification
of theory. Only secondarily is ethnography able to test theory, and this is limited
to a comparison of complex analytic descriptions of single cases as and when
such cases are accumulated. Detailed empirical description to reveal social
processes rather than causal generalisation is how the conventional approach
projects ethnography.

However, for many ethnographers the strength of the approach is the insights it
provides of social phenomena in their natural setting. For some, this is recast in
phenomenological terms and ethnography has increasingly tended to be used as a
procedure for gaining an understanding of social settings from the subjects' point
of view. Immersion in a field of study allows the ethnographer to gain insights
into the processes operating in the subject group, institution or community. Thus,
the emphasis for most ethnography is usually on forms of social interaction and
the meanings that lie behind these.
Nonetheless, ethnography, whether seeking subject's meanings or settling for
detailed analytic description has conventionally been characterised by
microscopic studies and an explicit concern with validity and reliability. The
exemplary method of ethnography, participant observation, has been particularly
susceptible to criticism of its subjectivism and unverifiability.

Participant observation, while receptive to subjects' conceptions and useful in


constructing an understanding of a social setting must nonetheless strive for
'validity', according to conventional accounts. In order to obtain an accurate and
reasonably complete and valid description it is necessary for researchers to
employ participant observation techniques systematically, comprehensively and
rigorously, that is, with adequate safeguards against the many potentially
invalidating or contaminatory factors that threaten to diminish the interpretability
of the resulting data. Contaminating factors are the reactive effects of the
observer's presence or activities on the phenomena being observed; the distorting
effects of selective perception and interpretation on the observer's part; as well as
the inability of the observer to witness all aspects of a given phenomenon.

The conventional approach suggests that it is crucial for the participant observer
to maintain a balanced perspective. The researcher should be 'hypersenstive' to
the various manifestations of threats to interpretability in order that steps may be
taken to reduce 'contamination' through the modification of the observer's role.

The conventional approach to ethnography emphasises detachment, enabled by


researchers' reflexive accounts of their role. This is crucial for an objective ,
systematic and valid analysis of a social setting.

Interactionist approach
Interactionists of all kinds have made extensive use of ethnography. Symbolic
interactionists in particular have been at the forefront of establishing ethnography
as a research style in its own right. This development (which is often closely
linked with the Chicago School of Sociology) has been seen as opposed to the
predominant positivistic quantitative approach.

It is notable, however, that the use of ethnography by symbolic interactionists


more often than not incorporates positivistic concerns. The ‘standard’ symbolic
interactionist approach adopts a pseudo-falsificationist approach. The procedure
is to identify interactive links; make initial statements about the social processes
observed (often on the basis of crude counts); posit some initial hypotheses; seek
out negative or falsifying instances and account for them; and gradually build up
a model based on unfalsified hypotheses.
Ethnomethodology and ethnography
Alternative models of ethnographic work can be found in the work
of ethnomethodologists who use ethnographic techniques (non-participant
observation and conversation analysis) to minutely inspect social processes (as
part of the documentary method) in order to reveal subjects’ taken for granted
assumptions about the social world.

Critical ethnography
Critical ethnography is a term with at least two distinct meanings.

First, it is used to refer to ethnographic study in which reflexivity is an integral


element. So any ethnographic research that is overtly reflexive is sometimes
referred to as critical ethnography. (See ethnographic reflexivity). This is a rather
confusing usage as it does not fit with more general notions of critical social
research that imply social critique rather than simply the reflexivity of the
researcher. Furthermore, some ethnographers would argue that reflexivity is an
essential element of all ethnography.

Second, critical ethnography is a term used to describe an approach to


ethnography that attempts to link the detailed analysis of ethnography to wider
social structures. There are, broadly speaking, three ways in which this is done:
contexualisation; structural analysis; dialectical analysis. See the entry critical
ethnography for details.

Ethnographic methods
Ethnography, as a style of research, uses a wide range of methods of data
collection, including in-depth interviewing, personal document analysis, life
histories, non-participant observation and especially participant observation.

Indeed participant observation and ethnography are terms that sometimes get
used interchangeably as some commentators see them as synonomous.

However, in most accounts, ethnography encompasses a wider range of methods


than participant observation. The confusion arises because participant
observation, in some usages of the term, itself includes all the above methods.
The difference is that ethnography does not necessarily have to include a
participant observation element.

Where a distinction is made between participant observation and ethnography,


the former is often seen as the exemplary ethnographic method.
Analysis of ethnographic data: vertical and horizontal reading
One useful procedures for sorting, coding and organising ethnographic material
is as follows. This can be done in hard copy on paper or file cards but is usually
faster and easier using a computer and there are various software programmes
that assist in this. In essence though this is the procedure. The data is read
‘vertically’ (usually chronologically) until the researcher is familiar with it. Copy
the data and then segment it into different themes, cross-referencing items (this
may require multiple copies of some parts). Some ethnographers referred to this
as ‘pile building’ because they literally cut up their material and arrange it,
according to themes, in piles (on the floor). This is usually done virtually now on
a computer but it is conceptually the same. The data is read again horizontally, by
theme, to assess the internal cohesiveness of the identified themes and the
interrelationship between themes. The initial themes indicate the structure of the
argument and thus of the eventual report. The data are read again vertically
within themes to see if it is cohesive, coherent and ‘works’ as an interpretive
framework. If it does the most revealing and clear examples from amongst the
separate theme piles are used to illustrate the report. If it doesn’t, new themes
may emerge or further reflection or enquiry may be necessary.

Reporting ethnography
Ethnographic research invariably leads to the collection of an enormous amount
of detailed accounts, quotes, examples, etc. The production of a finished
ethnographic report requires a selection from this detail. The choice of material is
guided by the theoretical framework (or angle) that has emerged in the course of
the study.

The ethnographer has been closely involved in the research that is both an
advantage and a drawback. It is an advantage because the researcher has a ‘feel’
for the diverse data and can see how it relates to alternative theoretical
frameworks. Being close can be a drawback if it inhibits a critical appraisal of the
material (a failure to see ‘the wood for the trees’). Hence, (ideally) ethnographers
withdraw from the field and examine their data from a number of different
perspectives in order to raise questions about preconceptions, acquired subject
perspectives, and so on.

This reflexive analysis is regarded as crucial by some ethnographers who require


that it be overt in the report. Others are less scrupulous about providing a
reflexive account.